Who'll Win Russia?

One big step forward. One step back.

That's the quick take on Sunday's election of a new legislature in Russia. Here's the to and fro:

*A giant but poor nation with little history of democracy held a well-run election for the third time in 10 years. But the campaign was dirty, made messier by the perverse use of a cruel war in tiny Chechnya.

*Russia's most dangerous parties - the Communists and ultranationalists - lost ground, but the political center in the 450-seat Duma is now dominated by a Kremlin clique whose "virtual" party, Unity, is appropriately nicknamed Bear.

*The election boosted free-market reformers, but voters also showed they prefer a strong, no-nonsense leader like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an ex-spy who seems inclined to run a police and security state.

Most of all, the election sets up Mr. Putin to replace Boris Yeltsin after the presidential election in mid-2000. Will Putin become a de Gaulle? A Lee Kuan Yew? Or a Pinochet?

That's where the West can step in. The next few months will be critical in helping steer Russia past its worst instincts of authoritarianism, cronyism, corruption, and anger over being the unsuperpower.

Outside leverage on Russia is highly overrated. This election shows that Russian voters and their wily elite can best guide the ship of state. But here are a few prongs of the steering wheel that the West can grab onto:

1. Be firm but not bellicose about ending the Chechnya war, not just for the sake of the innocent Chechens but to prevent Russia itself from being bogged down in a winless war that might create a backlash against the Kremlin.

2.President Clinton and Congress should delay deployment of an antimissile defense system that would violate a Soviet-era treaty that Moscow holds dear. Deployment now will only make winners of anti-West nationalists as the Kremlin goes through a game of musical chairs and will embolden Putin to spend on the military.

3. Keep doling out loans, despite the Chechen war, but tie them more closely to anticorruption efforts.

Such steps buy time until after a post-Yeltsin president takes over. And they can help Russia feel great again without it being grating on the West.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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